When you first meet the Reverend Jimmy Creech, it doesn't strike you. After all, he's a Methodist minister. He's unassuming. He's straight, and he's married. But Jimmy Creech has a belief. And he's willing to give up everything--even his pulpit--because he believes that gay men and lesbians have a place in the church.
It is June 28, 1998, and Creech is the guest preacher at Riverside Church in New York City. He stands in the pulpit once occupied by activist minister William Sloan Coffin, in the church built in 1929 for Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had resigned his pastorship at New York's First Presbyterian Church. For Creech, this is a fitting sanctuary after a bruising year.
The previous fall, Creech had celebrated the holy union of two women, Mary and Martha, at the First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was not the first holy union Creech had preformed for a gay or lesbian couple-there had been as many as 13 since 1990-but it was the first one since the United Methodist Church has seen fit in 1996 to forbid its ministers from participating in them. Two months before the ceremony, Creech wrote to the man instrumental in bringing him to Omaha's First Church, Bishop Joel Martinez, to let him know he intended to wed the women. Martinez counseled him not to. The year before, when he was offered the pastorship at First Church, Creech had had a very pointed discussion with the bishop's proxy, the district superintendent. "I'm very unhappy about the prohibition that was passed related to holy unions," Creech recalls telling her, "and you need to know I will not abide by it. It's unjust, and if that makes a difference in your asking me to come, I need to know it now. You can withdraw the invitation. And her comment to me was, "Well, we'll walk that road together when the time comes." Creech officiated at Mary and Martha's union on September 14,1997.
Two days later another Nebraska minister filed a complaint with Martinez. The complaint was referred to a church trial. Creech was suspended. In its 200-plus years, the United Methodist Church-the church of personal piety and social action, the church of theological visionary John Wesley and, yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton-had never put one of its ministers on trial for defying its "Social Principles." And although Creech was narrowly acquitted, Bishop Martinez decided against reappointing him to First Church.
We do not know Mary and Martha's real names. Those are the names Jimmy Creech has given them. None of the participants in the ceremony has divulged their identities. That ceremony at First United Methodist in Omaha set the stage for what threatens to become the first major rift in the nation's second largest Protestant denomination (there are 8.5 million members) since 1844. The issue then--slavery.
"This is God's history," say Creech one night at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is a confident assertion from a man who would lose his ministerial credentials within the month. "There is a saying from Africa that a man cries the loudest just before death," he says, less sermonizing than prophetic. "I see the resistance in the church as sort of that last cry. We have the opportunity to correct a very serious mistake that was made in the Middle Ages, when gay and lesbian people were attacked by the church. And it's going to be the emancipation ont only of gay and lesbian people, and not only of the church, but all people."
Since their ceremony, Ellis and Raymer have been as visible as Mary and Martha have been anonymous. The local news showed up at the ceremony, and their wedding album is on the Internet (www.geocites.com/~leeralnc). "We'll interview with anybody," Ellis says. There's a reason for that: Jimmy Creech.
"We had no desire to be poster children for gay unions," says Ellis, "but we could not let him take all the heat, let him make sacrifices, and remain quite and safe."
When news of the planned ceremony leaked--around the time another Methodist minister, the Reverend Gregory Dell, went on trial for officiating at a holy union-Ellis and Raymer called Creech. "Look, Jimmy," they said, "if you don't want to do this, we understand." There was no question about what Creech would do.
"Jimmy knows in his heart what's right and is not going to stand for what is wrong," Raymer says. "I find him to be extremely gentle, extremely loving....There's a good deal of power in that."
As a teenager growing up near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Creech decided he wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. He got the appointment, but before he could go, a football injury interfered.
Out of seminary some years later, Creech was the pastor at Warsaw Methodist on the North Carolina coast when one of the parishioners, Paul, came to him and said he could not remain a member of a church that so clearly did not accept him.
To its passage about human sexuality in the "Social Principles" ("Sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the Church, and society") the Methodists had added: "Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all."
Creech hadn't known Paul was gay. Indeed, although he'd had a very assertive justice ministry, Creech hadn't thought much about homosexuality, didn't know any gay people. Creech was dismayed by Paul's decision but, after listening to him, agreed with his conclusions. Paul left the church, and Creech began reading more closely what the Bible said about homosexuality, what Biblical scholars have said, what gay people and sociologists and historians have said about gay desire.
Creech won his Omaha acquittal in March 1998 by using a technicality to battle the church's legalism. He argued that the prohibition was merely "advisory." Five months later, the Judicial Council trumped that maneuver by ruling that the prohibition was indeed law and that pastors who did not adhere to its language would now risk censure or loss of their ministerial credentials.
Creech then challenged his fellow pastors to "protest this decision.by defying the prohibition and publicly celebrating same-sex covenants."
In January 1999, 68 United Methodist ministers from the California-Nevada Conference perpetrated a mass mutiny by celebrating a holy union ceremony for Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett in Sacramento.
Four months before, Dell had celebrated the holy union of Keith Eccarius and Karl Reinhardt at Broadway United Methodist in Chicago. He was tried in March 1999, found guilty, and given this option: The only way to lift his suspension would be to sign a pledge that he would uphold church law. Dell chose to leave the ministry and became director of In All Things Charity, an organization of United Methodists working for inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.
The struggles in the Methodists Church will continue through May, when the church's General Conference, its top legislative body, convenes.
The daughter, granddaughter, niece, and cousin of United Methodist ministers, Martha Buie Tyson at age 17 came out to her parents and then to the youth leadership of the North Carolina Conference.
"I kept running into Methodist young people in the gay bars who were struggling. How could they be gay and Christian?" she recalls. So she said to the youth ministers, "Hey, why don't we talk about it?" Their response was immediate. "I got excommunicated," she says. "They never spoke to me again; the leadership didn't look at me. They acted like they didn't know who I was. My dad's a preacher, my granddaddy was, his brothers are, cousins are--I thought I was one of them."
Tyson left the church. Nearly 10 years later, she picked up a copy of the local alternative weekly. On the cover was a picture of Jimmy Creech. Then pastor of the Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh, Creech had taken part in Raleigh's Gay Pride march.
"I called him immediately," she recalls," and said, `Can I have lunch with you?'"
"I was looking for somebody to confirm that I was in fact God's precious child. On some level, I've always believed that. I was raised well, and when I came out, it wasn't that difficult. It was when I told people and [got] the reaction I got, which sent me into this.I call it my `wilderness years.' I was in the midst of that when I met Jimmy.
"That day planted the seed in my heart," she says. "Over the last few years I've had a healing experience that I can link back to that day with Jimmy."